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Facing the cross: Churches in fresh storm over gifts, visits

By John Oywa and Beldeen Waliaula | October 6th 2019 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Priest in charge of Olnjororok Catholic church Fr Mwaniki holds cash from Nominated MP Maina Kamanda during a funds drive. (George Njunge, Standard)

The church is under siege. Critics, armed with weighty accusations are storming the pulpit from all directions as men and women of the cloth wield their bibles, wooden swords and rosaries in defence.

From politicians turning churches into supremacy battle fields to showbiz leaders using the altars to display their wealth and religious ministers feuding over leadership roles, money and assets, the House of God seems to be at a crossroad.

The epitome of the perceived decay of the church was witnessed a week ago as a section of alleged church leaders came out demanding their ‘deserved’ share of alleged loot.

“Churches in other regions are visited and handed something. The question we are asking is when will our day come? Are there no churches here in the Rift Valley that can be visited and gifted? When shall we get our share of this thing going round yet the September 30, 2019 deadline is fast approaching? Tupewe share yetu kabla CBK ifunge hiyo mlango,” they said in a clip that went viral.

Two weeks ago, two political leaders fought at a Catholic Church in Kiharu, Murang’a County as bishops, priests and their flock watched in disbelief, in what many Christians described as a religious sacrilege.

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Shocked congregation

Days later, a cleric from another church shocked his congregation when he predicted that a leading politician was destined to become the country’s next president. The attack against him was swift and harsh.

But has the church abdicated its role as is being alleged? Is the church still playing its role as a watch dog for the voiceless?

Has the church that fiercely fought for democratic space in the early 1990s gone to sleep? Has it slipped into a moral pit as one newspaper columnists recently claimed?

Observers who spoke to the Sunday Standard say the likes of fiery Anglican Bishops - Henry Okullu, Alexander Muge, Manases Kuria, and Catholic Cardinal Maurice Otunga would be shocked at the performance of their successors if they were to wake up today.

They say they are missing retired Catholic prelate Ndingi Mwana a Nzeki and Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA).

Those were the days when the then dreaded Special Branch officers would swarm churches every Sunday to record sermons and monitor politicians associating with the ‘rebel’ clerics.

For example, the late Bishop Okullu’s office at St Stephen’s ACK Church in Kisumu was under intense intelligence surveillance on a daily basis. On Sundays, the officers would sit among the congregation, recording every word Okullu preached.

One day in 1996, Bishop Okullu got a rude shock when youths hired by pro-government politicians blocked him from entering the Rae Anglican church in Nyando Constituency where he was to deliver a sermon. 

He had to wait for hours in his vehicle to access the church. Word had earlier spread that the Bishop had prepared a stinging sermon against the government over alleged harassment and unlawful arrest of opposition supporters.

For journalists, Sundays were never dull as visits to All Saints Cathedral, Holly Family Basilica, the Kikusu PCEA of Maseno South’s St Stephen Stephen ACK Church were potential headlines.

A retired lay leader at the All Saints Cathedral, Mzee Stephen Mwangi said the church was often charged on Sundays. “Journalists and undercover police officers were normally all over whenever Bishop David Gitari was on the pulpit. These clerics stood for justice for all Kenyans. They were courageous and gave the ruling class restless nights. The problem today is that most church leaders are after material wealth. They also fear facing off with politicians,” said Mwangi.

Rev Canon Micah Amukobole of the Anglican Church, says politicians pose the biggest threat to the church.

“The problem is the political class wants to control the agenda of the church with what they call ‘tithes’ to get a platform to speak and lecture the church for their political advantage,” he says in a sermon posted on the website of the Nairobi-based All Saints Cathedral.

He adds: “They are undiplomatic and often show no respect to the church, because the church yearns for their money as though Philippians 4:19 does not exist in the Bible.”

In a hard hitting rejoinder, ACK Bondo Diocese Bishop, Prof David Kodia says attack on the church was misplaced and unfair.

“I wish to state that the church has witnessed relentless historical as well as social challenges over the years. The popular conception that the church is no longer assertive in its stand on justice and morality is farfetched, especially where an imaginary line is marked regarding the roles of the church vis a vis its space in society,” said Prof Kodia.

He added: “Since the time of the Okullus, Muges and Gitaris, different dynamics have evolved defining our new roles in society. During the time of Okullu, Kenya was like an absolute dictatorship and all voices of the opposition were consumed by State-managed intimidations. This left the church as the sole voice of dissent.”

But Prof Kodia also criticises the media for abandoning the church: “In the past, the media gave ample coverage to the church. But not anymore. Today, the church is given blackout by the same media. Most journalists would rather run after politicians and cover their divisive messages instead of covering our church messages,” he said.

Retired Kisumu Catholic Archbishop Zacheus Okoth and his successor, Philip Anyolo defend the church saying nothing has changed and that it continues to play its rightful role in society.

“The church remains sacred and its values do not allow politicians to use altars to push their political agenda,” said Okoth.

Archbishop Anyolo said, “Fund raising in the church has been there for a long time, but when politics takes over scriptures it loses meaning; we do not allow politicians to the holy altar.”

Anyolo was on the limelight late last year after Deputy President William Ruto gave him a car during his enthronement as archbishop. He faced criticism for accepting the gift. He has since donated the car to a home for the aged and orphans.

According to Bishop Joshua Koyo of Episcopal Church in Kenya, politicians should come to church as other believers and not expect special treatment.

“If a politician comes to church he should seat at any available seat and not automatically be given the front seat. And if the politician comes to church let them speak to people outside church when the service is over and not on the pulpit.’’

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